Fully recovered, Olver now at helm of Commerce as economy swings up
By Brian E. Clark
Aaron Olver almost didn't make it through 2009 to be in a position to become the state's new Commerce secretary.
Now fully recovered from the H1N1 virus and days into his new job, the 36-year-old Olver says he believes Wisconsin is emerging from the recession. He notes that the state had gained 13,000 jobs during the first quarter of 2010.
"So my big takeaway is you should become Commerce secretary during an economic upswing," he quipped. However, he noted seriously, he has no idea how soon the state will recover all of the approximately 160,000 jobs it shed during the recession, which began in 2007.
For the most part, Olver says he is pleased with the economic development measures passed by the Legislature during the just-concluded session.
WisBusiness audioBut if he has one big regret, it’s that the Clean Energy Jobs Act did not make it to Gov. Jim Doyle’s desk.
“From my perspective, it’s been a home run session,” said Olver, who became secretary April 19. He replaced Dick Leinenkugel, who was appointed by Doyle in 2008 and is expected to announce a run for the U.S. Senate against Russ Feingold today.
“From the budget through the session this week, we have created some of the most powerful economic development tools in the country through the enterprise zones, which have been improved and expanded by the governor and the legislature.”
He also lauded the consolidation of tax credit programs, giving companies breaks for incumbent worker training and giving incentives to encourage modernization and investment in research and development.
Olver said he is especially proud of the expansion of the “Accelerate Wisconsin” tax credits for angel capital investment, which he said have proved successful in increasing early stage investment in high-growth potential companies.
“This has proven so popular that in the past two weeks, the state of Minnesota copied the program almost word for word,” he said.
But Olver said he was dismayed that the Legislature failed to pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act.
“We ship $16 billion dollars (in fuel costs) out of the state every year and I think there is a great opportunity here to build and expand our green energy jobs sector,” he said.
“We’ve got a huge manufacturing base, a huge resource base, a huge base in biomass – both in agriculture and forest products -- and there is a real opportunity to capitalize on that.
“My fear is that whichever state or country plants the flag in the ground first and takes strong action in the clean energy space will become the leader. There will be momentum, investment, job creation, fixed capital investment and I want that to be in Wisconsin.”
He said he did not believe electricity costs would escalate greatly because of the legislation, as some critics charged.
“We always to listen to business concerns and have an open ear to make sure that policy steps are going to be job creators. But the most recent analysis I saw was that this was expected to lower energy costs. If we can drive green energy (job) creation and lower energy costs, then that’s a home run.”
Olver said his economic development priorities for the rest of the year will focus on executing what he calls a “next generation strategy.” It will have two major components, focusing on the state’s traditional bases of manufacturing and agriculture.
One part will help established businesses to make investments in their workforce, on sustainability and on capital improvements, as well as helping them get globally engaged.
The second part, he said, is to focus on the emerging economy and work with entrepreneurs to build new companies in biotech and information technology, clean energy and water, which he called a major emphasis in the Milwaukee area.
“When you look at economic development, investing in emerging areas is a long-term strategy. I give Governor Doyle a great deal of credit for his leadership, because this is not a strategy that pays off in the short term.
“But when you look at Wisconsin’s marquee companies like Case, S.C. Johnson, Harley Davidson and Kohler, a lot of them ... were once one-person companies building motorcycles or appliances out of garages and today they are the state’s leading corporations.
“So today we are focused on planting the seeds that will be tomorrow’s economic goliaths.”
Olver said an increase in imports shows that manufacturing in the state is beginning to rebound, as is agriculture.
“We’ve also seen some small biotech and technology companies relocate to Wisconsin in past year to take advantage of our angel and venture capital credits. So there are broad signs of recovery, but it will take time to work out from very deep national recession.”
For businesses that are still down, he said it is Commerce’s aim to help them invest and get ready to thrive as the economy recovers.
He said Commerce is also working to help firms by finding new markets abroad through a program called Global Positioning Services (GPS), which encourages small manufacturers to pursue new sales channels.
Olver, a native of Middleton, said he is not sure what the future holds for him in 2011. He was working in Illinois as a management consultant before joining the Doyle administration as part of his transition team in 2002. Olver joined Commerce in 2003 and also served under secretaries Cory Nettles, Mary Burke and Jack Fischer. He was deputy secretary before the recent promotion.
Olver acknowledged that he almost didn’t make it through 2009 to be in a position to become head of Commerce. A nasty run-in with the H1N1 virus put him on life support in a medically induced coma from late November through late December.
“Now I’ve made a full recovery and am back to where I was six months ago,” he said. “But I think I had the misfortune to experience every form of life support equipment other than heart-lung bypass machine.”
The illness, he said, has made him realize that “a lot of things I got worked up over before are not that big a deal in grand scheme of things. It also really showed me how blessed I am to have such a huge network of friends and family.
“It also gave me a new look at health care system. Terms like lifetime caps and pre-existing conditions didn’t mean much, but I now understand in an intimate way.
“So I’m proud we have a president who has passed substantial health care reform,” he said.